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Kashmir's mighty rivers are a source of strife on the subcontinent.
SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Atop the disputed Baglihar Dam in the mountains of Kashmir, the Chenab River roars like a 747 as its silvery waters churn the dam's massive turbines and boil out over the ravine in a tremendous, spiraling white waterfall.
The air is moist, and a massive cloud of mist floats downstream toward the roadway, where moments ago a dozen busloads of soldiers headed for posts along India's border with Pakistan have rumbled across a narrow bridge.
“Even today, soldiers are moving up and down all the time,” says my translator and guide, Rashid Dangola, a white-haired houseboat owner from Srinagar who tells me that in the heyday of India-administered Kashmir's armed struggle for independence he would buy his booze from the army and his hashish from the militants.
These troop movements are indeed a constant part of daily life in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where the Indian army stations 600,000 to 800,000 soldiers — more than double the number deployed for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A fragile cease-fire has held here since November 2003, but Kashmir remains one of the most dangerous places in the world. Anger over the bloody partition that divided India and Pakistan in 1947 and a bitter feud over the ownership of this majestic portion of the Himalayas have led the two subcontinental powers to three full-fledged wars and a perilous standoff in 2002, when many world powers feared the dispute would go nuclear.
There are many reasons for the Kashmir conflict. But perhaps the most important of them is the water that spews into the sky at my feet. When the British drew the borders partitioning India and Pakistan, their cartographers failed to consider the run of the rivers that would feed the two countries. Kashmir's accession to India granted New Delhi control over the headwaters of the Indus — the lifeline of civilization in what is now Pakistan since 2600 B.C. And although a treaty for sharing the water was worked out in 1960, its foundation has begun to crack under the pressure of the two countries' rapidly growing populations and the specter of climate change.
Shortly before he led Pakistan's troops into the Kargil War, a then-unknown Pakistani general named Pervez Musharraf wrote in his dissertation at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London that the issue of the distribution of the waters of Kashmir between India and Pakistan has “the germs of future conflict.” Because water is the one resource that neither India nor Pakistan can do without, many experts fear that one day the dispute over the Indus — already an incessant source of diplomatic skirmishes — will propel these two nuclear weapons states into an all-out war.
Battles over water are already mounting in number around the world, according to Peter Gleick, an expert at the Pacific Institute. But Kashmir could be the most dangerous flash point. According to a recent United Nations report, Pakistan's water supply has dropped from about 5,000 cubic meters per person in the 1950s to 1,420 cubic meters today — perilously close to the threshold at which water shortage becomes an impediment to economic development and a serious hazard to human health. India, at 1,750 cubic meters per person, is not much better off. Both countries' huge populations are still growing, and because most of the available water comes from the disappearing glaciers of the Himalayas it is extremely vulnerable to climate change.
“We already see evidence that the climate is changing water availability and water quality,” Gleick said. “Kashmir is a place where water may not be the worst of the problem, but like the Sudan, or like the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers or like the Nile, it's a growing factor in what is already a conflict situation.”